Here is the review of BioShock Infinite that I wrote for this week’s print edition of Entertainment Weekly:
The original BioShock is a definite contender for the Greatest Games of All Time list. The 2007 undersea dystopian adventure could have been just one of the niftiest first-person shooters ever. But creator Ken Levine infused the game with a surprising amount of intellectual depth. (How many games do you know that deconstruct Ayn Rand?)
Now Levine has delivered BioShock Infinite, less a continuation than a far-flung variation. Where BioShock took place in the depths of the ocean, Infinite sends you to Columbia, a city in the sky circa an alternate-universe 1912, where an all-American powder keg of religious fervor, economic discontent, and jingoistic exceptionalism threatens to explode. You play as Booker DeWitt, a Bogart-y Army vet sent to Columbia to rescue Elizabeth, a mysterious woman with a mysterious past and mysterious powers. To say more would spoil the tale; suffice it to say that the whole flying-city thing might be the game’s least crazy sci-fi element.
Infinite doesn’t radically alter BioShock’s basic mechanics, though there are some cool new powers and multilevel air combat. But if the gameplay sometimes feels a bit too familiar, the ambient pleasures of Infinite are, well, practically infinite – tutorials that look like Georges Méliès films; animatronic chaingun-toting George Washingtons; a barbershop quartet on a dirigible singing the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”
Like its predecessor, Infinite is a cocktail of dreamlike world-building, philosophical skepticism, and shoot-’em-up adventure. Difficult to stop playing and even harder to stop thinking about, BioShock Infinite is the videogame version of the novel of ideas, the kind of thing that would be incredibly silly if it weren’t so big and bold and scary and thrilling.
ADDENDUM: Every word of that review is true. Or anyhow, the opinions it represents are as true as opinions can be. BioShock Infinite is without a doubt one of the most interesting videogame experiences in this dying videogame generation. And since the whole notion of massive-length megasized-world, AAA-blockbuster, single-player videogames might be going out the window pretty soon, Infinite feels like an important end-of-empire representation of everything that has been great and weird and introverted and flawed about the great games of the last decade or so. When BioShock came out, it felt like the future – proof that the booming videogame industry could combine mass-market entertainment with whatever it is we mean by “art.” Infinite arrives with the industry in an existential moment, struggling through technological advances it used to define and conservatively doubling down on the franchise audience. Auteurist analogy: If BioShock was The Godfather, then BioShock Infinite is Apocalypse Now.
So by all means, you should play BioShock Infinite. But I feel there is an important point missing in my review. It’s about the ending. Some further discussion is required. Let me try to explain – without spoilers, at least at first.
Whenever people talk about the first BioShock, they inevitably wind up talking about The Twist. I assume you know what The Twist is, since you’re the kind of person who reads videogame reviews. (If not: Quit your job, go play BioShock, and get a better job after you reassemble the exploded pieces of your head.) To recap in brief: In BioShock, you thought you were playing as a random faceless protagonist, helping a heroic freedom fighter defeat villainous tycoon philosopher Andrew Ryan; in actuality, you were a sleeper agent with a past that tied right into the game’s mythology, the freedom fighter was a villainous thug, you didn’t have any free will, and Andrew Ryan forced you to kill him in a proud act of suicide-by-proxy.
If you dug in deep, it wasn’t the cleanest twist ever, plotwise, depending as it did on various supervillain genetics and a remarkably well-placed plane crash. But The Twist was absolutely brilliant, for two reasons: 1) It effectively foregrounded many of the ideas central to BioShock – and, maybe inadvertently, directly addressed a number of ideas central to the whole first-person-shooter genre. 2) Like everything in BioShock, it wasn’t totally logical, but it was perfectly dream-logical. (At an earlier point in the game, you saw a dead woman in a bed. Once you learn The Twist, you realize that woman was your mother, killed by your father, maybe even on the bed where they copulated, which makes the vision of the dead woman on the bed one of the most grotesquely twisted primal scenes in the history of popular entertainment.)